When the twelve days of Christmas are nearly all done and back to work and school have almost begun; when you’re trying to start a well behaved January diet and hoping you can keep the continuing cravings quiet… the last thing you need is to encounter temptation in the form of seemingly expertly baked vegetation. But yesterday, the snow was falling and amid the sludgy bog, what should I discover but an enormous Yule log?! I knew it wasn’t chocolate but the damage was already done, right there on my healthy walk, loomed a spectre of sweeter fun. How am I supposed to resist when nature and confectionary conspire to conjure huge reflections of the objects of my desire? The bark became the thickest fudge icing that I ever saw and the snowy sprinkles topping it only made me want it more. No matter that I couldn’t actually consume this effigy when I could simply head for home, and so effortlessly raid the leftover treats that had been so nobly put away, shutting up the resolutions instead to revisit some other day.
Today was a picture perfect Winter’s day of wide Wedgwood skies and every surface glazed with varnishing crystals of thick sparkling frost accentuating each detail as if it had been embossed. Silhouetted trees line-danced along fields delicately as low light illumined their unrivalled intricacy. And as dusk approached, before the last rays had gone, a huge honeyed moon appeared and coldly-goldly shone. I crunched the diamond jewel-ground with my booted feet, wishing I could pause time and press repeat, repeat, repeat.
Look closely among the dross and debris of the year that’s gone to find the first precocious shoots of this year stirring strong. These are just beginnings, premonitions of blooms ahead, growing in the midst of what’s been left behind for dead. But out of all that lies discarded here on the woodland floor, a forest of flowers will soon burst through and shine as they did before. This is a new start, dear heart, you deserve another chance to drink in colour and scent – to live your one wild dance.
When the year is fading fast and there’s little growth to see, I’m not impressed to find Hart’s Tongue sticking out at me. It only highlights the largely bare soil that reminds of all that’s been lost to the seasons’ sorrowful turning and the bitter biting frost. Another day I’d laugh to see its silly bleurgh but not while I’m reflecting on all I’ve left behind this year. For I’m already tongue-tied, groping for words and deeper meanings, and am simply not in the mood for plants that are so cavalier with others’ feelings.
The wind chill has iced the air to several degrees below and it takes an age to layer up before I dare to go outside and brave the cold that pierces my thick coat and the dense woollen scarf that’s woven round my throat. I look at the tiny birds and shudder at their miniature forms before I remember their fluffing up is the model for all my warm. My down coat here and duvet at home mimic their heating system, layering up feathers and body-warmed-air in eider-inspired wisdom. I reappraise my view and imagine the birds looking back at me, assessing my futile attempts to keep warm rather pitifully, cosily inhabiting pom-pom poses of impressive winter adaptations, and rolling their eyes at my insufficient, knock-off clothing contraptions.
Deep into the twelve days of Christmas, but before New Year starts to beckon, is the best time to try hibernation, at least that is what I reckon. When we’ve posted and given and shared, and the feasting is feasted and done, there’s just about time to curl tightly up before life demands to be re-begun. This is the time to imagine you’re a creature such as a hedgehog or dormouse snuggling down for continuous naps inside a comfy, cosy house. There’ll be plenty of time to explore the wild during twelve months of fast coming year, so just for now, let’s ignore all that wow, and stay sleeping and snoozing right here.
There’s been no snow in the valley to whiten our Christmas, but there on the tops, glistening bright in the distance, a flurry of fine icing has been liberally spilled, crafting impromptu Christmas cakes out of the hills. It’s like it’s been arranged to lure me up to the heights in search of ever elusive Narnian delights. Whether planned or spontaneous, the results are the same, I can’t beat Winter when it plays this kind of game. I’ll have to respond by ascending to the drifts to receive the promised crunch and swift spirit lifts that hover on horizons where cloud and cover meet. Yes, until I obey this summons, I’m doomed to itchy feet. But for now I take another piece of Turkish delight, mix up frothy hot chocolate, and everything’s all right. There’s more than one way to re-live my favourite story – though dwelling in White Witch world misapplies the allegory!
After a day celebrating inside with copious quantities of feasting, it’s good to exchange crisp fresh air for the fug of central heating. The paths and fields are full of similarly replete neighbours walking off the excesses of yesterday’s fine, rich flavours; enjoying clearing their heads and some gentle exercise following the certain peril of indulging bigger-than-stomach eyes. We catch up on each others’ Christmases, and who ate most roasts at lunch before each completing our circuits, and returning to Boxing Day brunch!
On the first day of Christmas, my friend Sally received… a cuckoo in a Gabonese tree! She can see where he is, and track his odyssey… on a website for ornithology. He was here till July, when he left England behind… to fly several thousand miles. France, Spain, Mauritania, Senegal, Nigeria – an impressive global traveller. He flew alone that far with no compass and no map… how on earth did he manage that? Of all the migrations I’ve ever come across… Sally’s sponsored cuckoo must come out top!
Watching for the star to shine the way again, watching over sheep in the cold night rain, watching for the silhouette of Bethlehem’s gate, watching for dusk to dawn tomorrow’s date.
Riding across distant deserts to purposefully seek a King, sitting out late on the hills, interrupted as angels sing, labouring next to animals for the transformation of everything, walking by the river, wondering what gift I can bring.
All the world caught up in backdrop to the story, nothing too normal to be a stage set for glory, nature tuned to prelude in prophetic preparatory for one tiny infant to rewrite the whole of history.
The branches are birdless, I can see because they’re bare, but still insistent birdsong trills its trebles through the air. I’m not in a theme park with camouflaged speakers but it still seems I must be hearing pre-recorded cheepers. Where are they hiding in the dense twiggy hedges? Why don’t they show themselves and at least take the credit for brightening the whitening dreary of this day with their constant concert of first-class cabaret?
Whenever I see a hole in a birch or beech or oak, I just can’t help imagining miniature fairy folk. I’m delighted animals and birds find shelter in wood, but no matter how hard I try, it’s just simply no good, they are never what I picture when I see potential homes carved out of the middle of something that is grown. I don’t think I’ll ever reach a ‘pragmatic’ age – to mature past make-believe was not how I was made!
This is the turning point, light will soon seize the upper hand, lengthening and strengthening its daily winning stand. Minutes more each day now in a slow, quiet ticking gain, inching us closer to warm despite cold, bleak refrains. But on this final darkening day, Weather has joined the losing side, shrouding the morning in dismal, helping the southerning sun to hide. If I didn’t know the science, or the date, or the hope of all ahead, I might be tempted by the gloom to surrender to creeping dread. But instead I fix on the promise of change and chivvy myself to rally, whatever my senses say, Spring is about to start her tally. In a few more weeks for sure now, I will wake to morning light, and my treasured late afternoons will no longer belong to the night.
Now the trees are stripped back, it’s easier to see the antics of Spider-Bird as he ascends trunks vertically. I believe he has super powers to so conquer gravity whatever experts conclude about the design of his feet. I love to watch him spiral up, following his helical path, as he forages for the bugs he resembles, hidden in the bark. I’ll never tire of marvelling at his Herculean hops or his sudden daredevil descents, when he abruptly stops. I think he deserves a flashier suit, more befitting an action man, but I suspect his very blending in is just part of his master plan to dominate the creeping world by beating them all at their game, which is perhaps also why he usually assumes a pedestrian name. But I will not call him ‘Treecreeper’ as it so woefully understates the brilliant thrill of wonder he miraculously creates.
Other people can seek perfect powder at Val d’Isère or hurtle down the Matterhorn in crisp Swiss alpine air. But I don’t see the need to spend a fortune on the slopes, no, slithering close to home is where I’m pinning all my hopes. I won’t need to hire or buy any smart, specialist equipment to experience the thrills of sliding and speeding fulfilment. Instead, I’ll head for the muddy fields of glorious Nidderdale, which, at this time of year, never disappoint or fail to offer up the chance to chase a hazardous black run, and enjoy the plummeting high of downright dangerous fun. Never mind watching the forecast for news of snow and ice, the quagmire readily waiting will more than adequately suffice. Here I can still break my leg, but it’s absolutely free, yes, budget Yorkshire skiing is the Winter sport for me!
It seems our little Jenny wren isn’t the only bird intent on replacing someone’s Christmas tree angel during this Advent. Last night, a sparrowhawk in Scotland made the evening news for coming up with a full, festive angel-replacement ruse. She waited till her target opened the back door nice and wide, then took her envied chance to relocate herself inside. She placed herself, happily, on top of the Christmas tree, fancying herself the pinnacle of all its glittering finery. Eventually experts came to help, and the bird was safely released, no doubt she was far from impressed though, to miss the 25th’s feast!
The leaves are all long gone now, so what is all this gold that suddenly and sun-fully is warming up the cold? The wooded hills burn again with bronze and copper fire as the twigs take their turn to shine with colours of desire. And these newly ochred acres, coloured in by low sunlight are like a little second Autumn that resurrects the fallen bright. My spirit is touched by the low light too, swelling to gleams and glows as it’s polished and uplit into uplift by reprising October shows.
When my boots are covered in mud and the path is oozing goo, I like to re-imagine the slime I’m sliding and squelching through as something far more appealing, and splendidly appetising, such as Mississippi mud pie or Yule log with rich, thick icing. Of course it increases Winter cravings when I fixate like this on chocolate, so perhaps I should always be prepared by having some in my pocket. For if I arranged things in this way, I’m sure that would compensate for wading through such a sticky mess and getting so thoroughly caked.
There is a little Jenny Wren who bravely leaves her huddle, and all the warmth that is her own whenever her chime cuddles, to perch on top of the terrace conifer and directly stare at the angel on our Christmas tree as if wishing she was there, trimmed in golden plumage with fallen stars at her feet, glittering in the twinkling and basking in the heat of seeming sunshine feathers ruffling in the grate, dancing on and on to conquer the dark and late. I call her the Christmas bird and imagine a full backstory where she longs to come inside and claim the angel’s glory, but learns in time it’s only fabric and can neither sing nor fly, and for all its glorious glamour will soon have to say goodbye, when Twelfth Night passes and it’s boxed up and put away, never to feel the air in it’s wings or the real sun’s stroking rays. Then I watch my Jenny Wren take off with a new sense of vision, as if reconciled to her one wild life and at peace with her decision.
There is no snow yet to smile at, but there are snowberries covering the branches of Symphoricarpos albus at Wysing – like little Winter winks suggesting more is on the way. So be patient, and perhaps, just perhaps, every bush and tree will soon bloom bright white for Christmas.
People think, in the countryside, you’ll always find more, but I confess I still miss the city sights I used to see before when my friends lived in Leeds at Foxcroft Mount and I honestly met more foxes than I could count. Each would slink along boldly with an almost feline grace, at surprising odds with the habit of then sticking its face in any rubbish it could rootle through to find choice fare, before looking up to fix on you with a nonchalant stare. It’s true, now we’re in Nidderdale, we are spoilt with sightings – kingfishers, otters, stoats, hares and myriad more to delight in – but I haven’t seen a single fox since we’ve all moved out here, and I do often wish one would magically appear with its burnished bright coat glinting in the moon, blessing me breathless with beauty even as it leaves too soon.
Every day the letter box resounds with a merry little crash as Christmas cards from far flung friends drop in on the welcome mat. Many depict idealised versions of crisp white winter scenes with the miniature man in red, resplendent against lush evergreens. His beak is usually open in song, as if carolling Christmas cheer, but it’s far more likely he’s really shouting, “get away from here!” For robins are feisty and fierce, defending their patches for all they’re worth, and are the most unlikely characters to be singing of ‘peace on earth’! It’s not surprising they’re romanticised when they perfectly fit Yuletide aesthetics, but you have to laugh when you realise they’re chirping the equivalent of expletives… I’m not suggesting robins should relinquish their role as chief festive bird, but just that we laugh a little at ourselves for being so quaintly absurd.
Last night, I dreamt of Summer and everything I miss when the world around me shivers and the sun shuns to kiss the hedgerows and the hillsides with its full bodied rays, holding back its warmth and putting in part-time days.
Last night, I dreamt of Summer and all the flowers that shone, but woke again this morning to find every petal gone, and only hardened earth in their place so bleak and bare, as if I’d only imagined there were ever colours there.
Last night, I dreamt of Summer and all that is to come on the other side of Winter when Spring has fully sprung; when the weary world has once again turned and changed and spun – and I saw myself dancing in what is yet to be begun.
Snow is the stuff of winter legends, elusive and long anticipated. And its warmer sibling rain is usually at least tolerated – after all, it’s always good for the plants and in heatwaves achieves celebrity status – it’s only when it drenches on and on that we long for a brief hiatus. But spare a thought for the middle child, wanted by no one and nothing at all. Yes, everyone moans and groans when sleet decides to fall. It’s a byword for disappointment, close the door on it, keep it away, “why can’t you just be snow?” we complain to it in dismay. To be fair it soaks to the bone, and inflicts an icy chill, with none of the beauty or fun that gives snow its superior thrill. But should it really be treated as such a social outcast? Do we always have to greet it with nothing but lambast? I admit I am struggling to find attributes to positively celebrate but perhaps I can still summon some kind of compassion to commiserate with the endless cold shoulders it experiences from us all, and resolve to be a bit more polite next time it comes to call.
Why does it cause such extreme delight when we bring various elements of nature inside? Cut flowers in the kitchen spreading scent through the air, animals scampering about, creating havoc everywhere! Pot plants on the landing, blooming courtesy of the heating, all bring a sense of the great outdoors (while only slightly cheating). And the the pinnacle of it all, I’m sure you must agree, that moment each December when we bring inside a tree. We move the furniture over, squeeze past branches every day, but exclaim “no it absolutely isn’t even slightly in the way!” We add to our living room grove by bringing the tree some company, bedecking every remaining surface with mistletoe and holly. And nothing else we buy or make can really quite compete with the ever-greens and berry reds we string out and spin in wreaths. Is there something deep within me that half longs to live outside? Even though I’m so far beyond even trying to acclimatise to life really and truly lived underneath a tree – that would be too much of getting inside nature for me!
Searching, stretching, snipping the best branches and sprigs, bravely capturing holly despite her fierce, persistent pricks. Twisting, turning, weaving all the foliage into place, working with its eccentricities to shape something uniquely homemade. This year I use jasmine vines to form my basic hoop, and I can’t quite believe just how well they weave and loop. Strange that I’m amazed by this, and by using just one piece of string, when these extraordinary climbers are used to winding round anything. So I realise all I’m doing now, as I braid in variegated ivy, is reuniting old friends and imitating their mastery. A little bit of gold dust and my work is near completing, my hands are scratched and cold, but my heart is warmed by wreathing.
All across the field, like dot to dot puzzles, are the hilly remains of moles’ secret bustles. If only they were numbered, we would be able to chart the lines they have tunnelled in their underground art. Then we could perceive what they’re drawing below, but alas it’s all a muddle, so we will never know what masterpieces they’re making out of all that soil, and so most people conclude that all they do is spoil the smooth green turf that is so highly prized, negating their creating, and seeking their demise. But I suggest their work is perhaps misunderstood, it’s not necessarily fly-tipping, it might be rather good. Just because it’s abstract and a little hard to fathom, doesn’t mean it’s not deserving of a bigger fandom. So let’s hear it for the moles and their unconventional school, they’re not the first artists to break a few rules!
The first frost is soft, a subtle hint of glint on glistening gables that catches the morning light. But out in the fields there’s more to find, hidden here and there on the ground, as if Jack’s little sister has been practising her art like a precocious apprentice; running odd blades of grass through her icy fingers and learning to lace a leaf with sparkling glitter thread. I smile at these small sugared touches, appreciating their delicate shine and their tiny perfect prefiguring of the hoar frosts that will follow in time.
It’s only ever the female holly that treats December as one long jolly, dolling herself up from head to toe, trying to outshine the mistletoe. Cherry red lipstick on bright berry lips upstages even the remaining rosehips. But can you blame her when she knows she’s going to visit so many homes, and as she struggles with witty repartee, how else will she dazzle at every party? The lady in red knows this is her time and stealing the show is hardly a crime. She’s the belle of the ball but look, don’t touch – hugging holly close hurts far too much!
There’s something about Winter that’s pale – like it’s caught its own chill and shows it in washed out skies of bleached-bleary skin peeking out between thick duvet clouds. Its hues are quiet and withdrawn – muted, muffled, scarce – as if it’s shy, or somehow reluctant to be defined by anything except absence. But even in its half-hearted light, it still has hidden beauty to bestow if you’re willing to go on a quest to seek and see it up close. So be the one to make the move, pursue friendship with its wary ways, and you’ll find underneath all that white, weary bluster, Winter will often respond by blushing to sudden colour.
I know it was calculated planning that led our Advents to fall in December’s darkening nights. But I am glad of it all. For Winter draws us to waiting, waiting for growth and light. So why on earth not remember waiting for the coming Christ? The trees are fasting their colours, they’ve shed all their crowns at his feet, and I study their bold emptiness as I wait for the strength to seek. The wind carols lyrics of longing, the night draws close to see the watching candles all lit for a man from Galilee. He too found meaning in nature, shared pictorial lessons of wild to parable profound promises with the sage simplicity of a child. So I turn my heart’s full attention to listen and quietly look at the Winter world around me as it opens his truth like a book.
Autumn’s last stand is one small flag flying at full mast on the final branch to bear the colours. But like them all this too will fall, deserting its post and giving up the ghost as Winter’s winds win. And when it goes, that’s when I’ll know, this season is done. The next must be begun – it is time to surrender.
Not every life achieves a zenith in its glory days. Some shine best as they ebb and fall away, like bracken gilding the growing grey. I’m not inspired by its bold summer strength but by its triumph as it bronzes and bends, drenching moors in molten gold just before it ends. At the late and last is where it truly peaks, laying down its life to burnish the bleak with brilliant broken beauty burning quietly weak.
Haw munchers and hip crunchers are dominating the trees as flocks of fieldfares fan out for their flying, foraging feast. Like locusts descending, there’s a scorched earth policy, each gorger committed to stripping off every berry. They eat like teenage boys with constantly bottomless appetites that hardly even pause to swallow between endless bites. Is there a frenzy to it, as the last Autumn days drift by, like stockpiling groceries when you’ve got plenty put by? Or taking another chocolate, just so you don’t miss out, when you’re already uncomfortably full and there’s considerable doubt that you have any room left to squeeze another mouthful in, but still you plough on, much to your own half-horrified chagrin? This is how I imagine they feel as their bird bellies stretch and bulge, but of course I don’t know if it’s true as I can’t get them to divulge what it’s like to depend so completely on seasonal fare, and just how stark a spectre looms when the branches become bare.
If you want to taste truly gorgeous gourmet food, don’t book a posh restaurant, head for your nearest wood, or better yet trek for miles and climb a long, steep hill; spread a blanket on the moor, then sit and eat your fill. Never mind the mizzle or the fierce, gusting wind, this is where Michelin-starred dining truly begins. Replace fine wines with flasks of well brewed tea; make the menu sliced spiced cake smeared in rich toffee. What is the science behind the supremacy of outside food? Is it working up an appetite that makes it taste this good? Is it some kind of reaction with plain old fresh air that creates culinary triumphs out of ordinary fare? The best fish and chips are always eaten on the beach, go ahead, keep testing this philosophy I preach. I dare you to try and find something that tastes better inside than outside, even in inclement weather. So go on, treat yourself, dine out in your woolies, crown yourself the connoisseur, king of all the foodies.
More and more light seeps through the cracks of each day as morning sleeps in and dusk nudges afternoon out of the way. The sun is growing distant, when it deigns to show, as if it’s silently sulking with everyone below. And mist muffles the world with cold encroaching gloom that makes us think the evening cannot come to soon. At least then the fire will blaze and the lights can all burn bright, we don’t feel the darkness so keenly when it’s supposed to be night. Roll on December’s promise, when the struggle turns the other way, and growing light diffuses in again, more and more each day. Hold on through the shortest days now, through the longest nights, be thankful that this dimming drawing in is a temporary plight.
Strutting about in their cocky crowing crowd, a stag party of pheasants define loud and proud. Dressed to the nines and swaggering through the field, what high life do they think our little village will yield? What dares are they planning and who is the groom? I hope their hens will peck them into line again soon. Meanwhile they’ll continue on as if they own the place, guffawing and cawing constantly with no social grace. The day is only just beginning, have they any shame? Were they out all night long playing wild drinking games? I leave them all behind, retreating to the peace of home, I hope they keep out of my garden and leave me well alone.
The presents and cards are piling up for me and the house smells of cinnamon rolls, deliciously. The bunting is hung and the party’s all organised, the perfect day starts to unwrap before my eyes. But what will you bring me to celebrate this day? Could I request a sighting of some hares at play? I wish I could submit a lengthy letter to you – a wish list of everything I’d like you to do; I’d say please strew animal encounters all through today, preferably peppered with humour to keep the ageing blues away, and polish up the weather till it has a brilliant shine that lights up each wonder you intend to make mine. But perhaps the best gift is really the surprise – the mystery – of never quite knowing what you’re going to give me. So I’ll set off with my friends, everything else fully planned, but leave your gift up to your spontaneous, subversive hands.
Land-shaper, ground reclaimer, swelling with the flood of moorland streams and becks’ best dreams pouring from above. Storm snatcher, deluge catcher, racing full and free; gush your ardour into harbours, re-fill the placid sea. Express your rage, we understand this stage, you have to vent your flow till you’re spent and drained and restore restraint by reinstating rippling low.
Just when so many trees stand stripped back stark and bare, Viburnum gently creates delicate colour and honey-scented air. It’s like cherry blossom in November, exactly when you need it most, as if Winter’s shyly haunted by Spring in clusters of blush-pink ghosts. Each year now I look for its flowers, a treat to ease the loss of bright and keep me going till December and the stringing of fairy lights. I’d plant it on every street, if I was in charge of the nation, where it would lift each muted spirit with its beautiful, fragrant sensations. So let’s hear it for Viburnum, late blooming heroine of Fall, may she multiply and flourish, and blossom broad and tall.
The curtains go up on an early morning show as Kite, Crow and Sparrowhawk fight a fly-off in the glow. ”Wings at dawn!” is their battle cry as each competing warrior claims the same sky. Mobbing, jeering, swooping, executing elegant aggression, each one is determined to make no concessions. Who will win the territory and dominate the air? None of them are interested in trying to play fair. Kite plummets first, a muscle-bomb let loose, talons outstretched wide ready to tear and bruise. This is war – to the victor go the spoils, rapturous raptor charges as his bird blood boils. Crow and Sparrowhawk circle, reluctant to submit, but it looks like Kite is king and that is the end of it.
Suddenly Autumn is conquered by fierce winds from the east and pours out all her colour as she hastily retreats. The canopy of gold that yesterday blazed strong has been seized and separated and is almost gone. The trees stand weeping their last remaining tears, trying to remember there’ll be new growth next year. And what’s left of all their beauty is spilled out on the ground, a fleeting magic carpet of November’s lost and found. Tomorrow I’ll look for wonder in newly-skeletoned trees, but today I only want to feel Autumn’s farewell grief.
Some tree bark looks almost exactly like smooth skin that’s been stretched and puckered over wood-bone limbs. And once you notice it creasing round particular points you can’t help but think those points are just like joints. And once you’ve got started on this line of reflection, you’ll begin to see arboreal humans in every direction. Roughened bark brings nothing but wrinkles to mind and each sycamore has gnarly knees to find. Good luck not perceiving branches now as fingers reaching out, and being sure it’s just the wind that’s moving them about. What is it about us that sees ourselves everywhere, projecting characters and motives on to creatures, plants and air? Still there’s little more wonderful than taking a creative walk, ignoring your rational self and letting your imagination talk.
Drop the leaves, bare the trees, reveal my prey to me. Russet the land, camouflage my brand, make me hard to see. Dim the days, up the haze, this is my time to shine. Autumn weather is just my feather, it’s one long dinner time. Sorry to alarm but I am here to harm, it’s how I’m wired you see. So do be a dear, don’t let on I’m here while I’m hunting from your tree.
Stacking and packing logs out in the cold, picturing weeks of warming fires as I pick and hold each chunk of potential in my grateful hands, recognising wood-piling helps me better understand the cost of the heat my winter body seeks, the gift that is held in each piece of tree. There is a kind of grounding, connecting education that builds as I build the stack in tessellation. And as I mindfully take each log out from the bag, what do you know? One smiles back.
I usually view mist as a stealer of sights, a dampener of colour; a duller of light, a smothering enemy of diversion and delight. But today’s fog gives me cause to reassess this view as although it’s absolutely dimming every hue, it’s also making masterpieces from all-day dew. Each spider’s weaving is outlined with watery gems revealing high tightrope paths, and full, storybook webs, and little liquid fairy lights gleam on every twig’s end. Then from deep in the gloom comes a donkey’s bray, like a phantom’s scream piercing through the grey – if I didn’t know better, I’d expect foul play. As it is, after the shock, it makes me laugh when this sudden crazy sound penetrates the murky path, like the whole wild world is speaking up on my behalf. It seems then that even mist and fog can play their part in creating show-stoppers of brand new natural art, which means even the bleakest days can still lift my heart.
Millions of poppies brightly bloom though it’s long past July, and even their former seed heads have long since said goodbye. I see them planted in coats and strung up in the air, bringing memories of forgotten fields to every thoroughfare.
Grandad’s tales tell again though he’s no longer here to speak, they play freshly round my mind in precious, looping repeats. I know now he softened his stories in a child-friendly way – narrating how he kissed worms in relief and bought Nana French lingerie.
The histories I’ve heard and read over years tumble back to the fore, myriad mosaic struggles of so many people’s Second World War. I let them bloom out of season – bravery, drudgery, loss, freedom, regret – to receive poppy seeds of wisdom lest I grow complacent and forget.
But I also remember I don’t yet live in a season of real peace, others’ wars rage on even when Western news coverage has ceased. I must not see the poppy as a laurel, or a relic of something past, but pray for true remembrance to motivate peace-building that lasts.
Millions of poppies brightly bloom though it’s long past July, covering November in blood-red flowers till it’s time to say goodbye. I welcome their beauty, their time-bending truth, and their poignant call, I will try to tend them always, inside, even after they fall.
Down on the bank, the path is covered by leaves and it’s easy to slip on hidden acorn scree – stockpiles of seed surplus to growing need roll on rough ground and get under your feet. So be careful as you crunch through all that fallen copper that you don’t join the falling trend and find you come a cropper of the bounty that is broken and discarded underneath – the health and safety hazard that is Autumn’s debris.
Why doesn’t every poet celebrate the long tailed tit? I simply cannot understand the reason for it. Perhaps they haven’t noticed them bobbing in the trees like little feathered yo-yos flung up at ninety degrees. Perhaps they haven’t taken in their delicate pink blush or experienced the joy of the singular rush that comes from seeing a small flock of them all alight, brightening baring branches with whimsical delight. Perhaps they don’t know that these cheerful dancing troupes include designated helpers alongside their family groups. Perhaps they’re unaware of this bird’s superior social system, its constant communal care and corporate foraging wisdom. It’s time for the long tailed tit to rise to greater fame, to be drawn and sung and rhymed and sewn into a household name. Then no more woodland walkers will fail to look up and see these brilliant little birds that mean so much to me.
At the edge of the field, in the corner, on its own, stands the Coventry cow – completely alone. What has it done wrong to be shunned to this degree? Will it ever be forgiven? Does the guilt weigh heavily? Poor estranged cow, left to think upon its shame, I hope it will be welcomed back by its herd again.
You have to slow down if you want to see the sloes scattering blue berries across the starkening hedgerows. You will not spot them ripening if you move past too quickly, so unhurry your pace and take the time to get your hands sticky. You have to wait it out if you want to infuse all their flavour, sloe seasoned delicacies require time-consuming labour. But you’ll be richly rewarded for the effort you put in when sloes’ sweet syrup suffuses all through your gin.
See how far you get by car, little leaf hitchhiker. Cling to windscreen, ride the machine, watch out for the wiper… Up the A roads, through new postcodes: make the motorway! Hold on tight, win wind’s fight, keep on being brave. Don’t unravel, then you’ll travel further than you dream. Stay this bold, go for gold, join the Olympic-leaf team. Keep going forth, conquer the north, perhaps you’ll reach the border. If you do, congrats to you, a ceilidh is in order!
Lying on the grass, by the side of the lane, a football is resting, waiting for a game. But please don’t kick it for it’s not what it seems, and I’ll tell you now what kicking it would mean. Seven trillion spores would be let loose in the air, for this is Giant Puffball and it doesn’t play fair! If you don’t withhold your feet, you’ll have so many more, all waiting to play along and release yet more spores… So be wise now my friend, back away while you can, this is not the kind of football that deserves you as a fan.
If only the fieldfares could tell me what they’ve seen in all the distant lands where they’ve previously been. Their stories would sing of northern lights and deep, lush fjords, of flocking over wide blue seas in one seamless, flying hoard. They would speak of Russian cities with bright coloured onion domes, all the sights they’d seen so rapidly on their way to Siberian homes. They would bring alive for me everywhere I associate with snow, and weave wild pictures of half the world seen distantly below. If only I could hear their tales, I’d live their travels vicariously, and all the wonders they have known would be enough for me.
Teach me, like you, to be an instrument of peace, to walk lightly on this planet with careful feet; to celebrate what I see rather than extract or dominate, to love each part of creation for its own sacred sake. Teach me, like you, to recognise my kin in brother wind, sister water, and every familial living thing; to see the wonder of Creator spun into vista and vole, to marvel at each detail and the vast, breathtaking whole. Teach me, like you, to come alongside the earth, to kneel in humility and elevate her worth; to speak as her champion, urge protection for her young, to continue in your footsteps as I have begun. Teach me, like you, to walk slower than I have, to be ready for rescue moments, and to give the help I can; to turn my hands to your cause and join in your song, to praise God with greater reverence for where I belong.
Have you noticed, as the nights draw in, an arachnid invasion also begins? It’s the same every year, around this time, spiders boldly proclaiming ”your house is also mine”. I thought invitations worked the other way, that the owners decided who was welcome to stay. But at least eight legged friends don’t frighten me any more, at least not the little ones, not like they did before. I used to scream for rescue from any creeping long leg, crying out for my dad to clear up every spider mess! Now I have grown adept at sharing the same space without cowering in the corner or shouting down the place. Good job, as they’re clearly making themselves at home, and I have next to no control over where they choose to roam. Oh well, the more the merrier, isn’t that what everyone says? Though I don’t suppose they’re referring to prolonged arachnid stays!
Trudging the high ridged furrows, hoping we’ve found the right track, eyes down on uneven ground, trusting it matches the map. When suddenly our boot vibrations unwittingly disturb a scrape, a Jackrabbit-in-the-box leaps up and hares across the field at pace. We watch its bounding beauty, marvelling at wild sprinting grace, a little, long-eared cheetah winning the British land-speed race. Its form gleams bright in the low light, its movements are sure and bold. In every sense, for me, this mammal claims the gold. The field is transformed to film set, the hike elevated to legend, what a moment ago was chore, I wish would never come to an end. I will the hare to stay with us but of course he is bent on retreat, and the cause of constant freedom that is hard-wired into his feet.
The wasp in my lounge is drunk on sleep and careers into everything with force, at speed. First it’s the ceiling, then it’s the beams, what is it imagining in its dreams? It dive bombs and bounces off almost everything; I am frightened for its life, but also by its sting. It’s hard to relax when a weaponised beast keeps falling from the roof and disturbing the peace. Eventually it crawls into a crevice to rest, such a relief, I don’t know which of us was more stressed!
Down at the beech beach, the leaf-sand glows beyond the reach of the path, where nobody goes. I long to vault the wall and explore this secret stretch, to curl my toes round golden crunch, along the river’s edge. But where no feet have ventured, the shining remains like virgin snow, a glimmering colour cover, gilding the humble browns below. So I’ll stand considering perfection for as long as it can last, committing the beech beach to memory, where its landscape lives on in the past.
If a creature harnesses honeysuckle to use as its trapeze, and swings and leaps with elegance and long practiced ease, you’d think I’d be eager to celebrate its flair, and announce its prowess with a wild word fanfare. But the truth is, this creature, for all of its cunning is classed in a species that we’re constantly shunning. We say we want to cultivate wildlife-friendly spaces but the fact is our welcome isn’t open to all races. And so it seems my poems baulk at serenading rats, downplaying their aerial antics, despite the impressive facts.
Don’t rely on my local rooster for your early morning alarm call, unless you have no intention of keeping any appointments at all. He can hardly be bothered to crow until at least half past eleven, I can only presume he’s still sleeping when he’d be most useful at seven. I call him the teenage cockerel for his lie-ins last legendarily long, and when he does deign to cock-a-doodle, it’s a reluctant, embarrassed type of song. Perhaps he’ll grow into his calling, piercing the dawn with his squawking cries, then of course I’ll regret my complaints and despairingly roll my eyes. I’ll wish for the halcyon days when the village could snooze on in peace. Alas! The bird never wins – there’s no conquering my caprice.
Welcome to the thrill of the night drive, where Little Owls rise, twin-moonlit rabbits dive, and ghostly sheep appear. It’s never quite quiet on the night drive, where stalwart hedgehogs thrive and kamikaze bats collide with the metallic seeker you steer. So always stay alert during the night drive, for this might be the right time to disbelieve your own eyes at the creatures that come near.
Thundering falls turn water to foam, painting wild abstract patterns all over the flow. Ebbing, marbling, drawing leaves into the spin; a dizzying circling, kaleidoscoping everything. Reflection is suspended to mesmerising whirl. I stand stock still, surrendered to the swirl.
Faltering pheasant, this is not the time to dither, I’ve slammed on the brakes but you must move quicker. Don’t get confused now, swerving one way then back, I understand you’re scared but don’t get in a flap. Head for the hedgerow, wherein lies your salvation, you’ll get there safely if you stick to one direction. Faltering pheasant, keep your head together, don’t be feather-brained, move your actual feathers… What a surge of relief now you rise above the lane, but please don’t ever do that to my fragile nerves again.
The mists have returned to their old thieving ways, kidnapping the moors, keeping them captive for days. The tops have been exchanged for a thick damp haze which shrouds out everything but close, cold greys. Mists are lauded by romantics for their air of mystery but their weeping, creeping gloom forces me into retreat. I flick every switch to flood my world with light, hoping for bluer skies tomorrow, or even frost’s first bite. Mischievous murk, please return my upward view, I want to look to the hills rather than only seeing you. Lift! Leave! Evaporate! Unhang your encroaching cloud! Let the sunshine in again. Please. Soon. Somehow.
Standing on tiptoe to reach, twist and pluck fresh from the tree gives you quite a rush. Better than posh piles stacked high in supermarket aisles, one imperfect apple picked yourself is superior by miles. Feeling the rounded weight in your lucky hand next to the tree that gave it helps you understand the worth of what you hold, and the time it took to grow; a brand new revelation of what you already know. Surveying your bounty now, you recognise it as treasure, magnifying the joy of juicy, crunching pleasure. Visit an orchard if you can, meet different varieties, their names will entrance you with their possibilities. The Russet tastes like pear, the Sunset’s sweet as pie, put Blenheim Oranges in crumbles to serve up Autumn highs. Gather them all in October before it is too late, if there’s too many to eat, it’s the perfect excuse to bake! But don’t forget the wonder of seeing them on the tree, grasping them one by one, savouring the moment deliciously.
I didn’t see who did it but I’m on to their kind, though they won’t really care just how much I mind them covering my wood stain with their foul graffiti, spoiling my fresh paint job so utterly brazenly. Hours of work invested to make the wood shed smart, now they’ve sprayed it with their filth, have they absolutely no heart? What’s the point of scrubbing it clean when I know they will return, after all, I put it in their space, when will I ever learn? How are they supposed to know what is tree and what is not? And if they could tell the difference, why would they give a diddly squat? So let this be a lesson to me and to you, you can call it ‘garden furniture’ but they’ll still name it ‘loo’!
Starlings suspended in air, whispering silent conversation, miming complex charades of shapes in ebbing, flowing synchronisation. A shimmering shoal of black rippling with tides of turning wing, a seamless fabric floating dance, an almost mystical thing. I long to join the swarm, to warp and weft with feather in flight, to harness the power of wind to be in the swell, at one with the might; to swirl in a soup of bird, a temporary twister let loose in the clouds, to help cover the tops and fields with extraordinarily beautiful shrouds. But it’s enough to stand below and drink in the awe-inspiring sensation of marvelling at the mirages of a shifting murmuration.
I thought the results would be predictable when I decided to be more hospitable to creatures exhausted by flying and creeping; any minibeast looking for a safe place to sleep in. I established my bug hotel resort with pride, congratulating myself on protecting those inside; a five star shelter offering only the best, a luxury holiday, a first class nest. (I’d followed the experts’ advice to the letter, it would be hard to build anything better.) So imagine my shock when instead of offering rehab, I found I’d unwittingly created a deadly trap. What I had designed as retreat accommodation was commandeered by blue tits seeking feeding stations! All those sleepy residents, enjoying comfort and style had been lamentably lured into somewhere horribly hostile. It just goes to show when you get involved with nature, you’re not always in control, and that is the danger!
Way to go! Ride the flow, see how far you float. Perhaps you’ll see the vast North Sea, little leaf-fall boat. What a thrill ride, surfing wild tides – sailing made extreme. But first you need to balance speed with staying above stream. Down the Nidd now, show the Ouse how, make it all the way. Do a number on the Humber, conquer the leaf boat race. Be a winner, little skimmer, play the game and thrive. Stay right on course, jet ski the force, just remember, do not dive!
Not every Autumn leaf heralds colour and beauty worthy of serenading in song and poetry. Some take on more sinister complexions, inspiring singularly ominous connections. Hostas are case in point, snakes in the grass, mottled scaly skin urging you to walk fast lest they grow into motion and slither after you, yes, hurry on past hostas, whatever you do.
Why are you still here, October Swallow? Your swoop is long gone, how can you follow? Will you try to navigate the currents alone? When did you discover you were all on your own? Were you caught sleeping while the others stole away? Are you pathologically late, or are you just afraid? Is this your first winter? Have you flown the route before? Have you any premonition of what is in store? I see the panic in your flight as you search the empty skies for any other travellers accidentally left behind. Two weeks ago I wished all the swallows had remained, but now I find I’m wishing you were far, far away. I’m willing you to beat impossible odds triumphantly, to fly six thousand miles alone, to arrive miraculously. I don’t know if you can get there, but I’ll hope with all my heart that you’ll make it to Africa if you’re brave enough to start.
This silver birch requests a new valuation, an upgrade, a higher price, a re-estimation. Yes its trunk is silver but its leaves are shining gold, its two-tone precious metal is making it feel bold. This championing fan thinks it should have its way, a re-appraisal, a neo-naming to commemorate its Autumn blaze.
The clamour is circling, parliament begins with dissonant debating in a loud cawing din. No ‘order!’ caller, no mask of civility, every claw is out in a rook committee. “Where should we roost?” “What should we eat?” “If we can’t agree on anything, why do we meet?” Who is in charge? Nobody knows. On and on they squawk, round and round they go. At least that’s how it seems from down on the ground, but perhaps I’m misinterpreting their murderous sound. Maybe they are experts in clear communication, perhaps they should contribute to governing the nation!
I will stand under the beech tree as the west wind blows and dance among its whirling, twirling gold leaf snow. I will gaze up at its burnished clouds that scatter gilded birds and let myself rest from trying to find the perfect words to capture, to conjure, to hold the moment tight, to pin it to paper before it’s lost to time’s wild flight. I will stand under the beech tree as the west wind blows and spin and laugh, rejoicing in its rustling, radiant glow.
If you want to walk in Grassington you need to get up with the lark to be totally sure to guarantee there’ll be enough space to park. Although it’s not always cars of walkers that fill up every space, but large gangs of sheep who think they own the whole place. Good luck finding room if they’ve come out in force, they’re utterly prepared to stop you seeing Linton Falls. They don’t believe in Welcome to Yorkshire’s open philosophy, it’s your departing they are marketing as their top priority! But if you squeeze in somehow and finally get your break, at least they won’t block your way to finding tea and cake.
I have put my roots down here, but they are new and shallow next to yours. Mighty Oak, how many of my lifetimes have you lived here watching settlers walk past, towering over the bankside path as it erodes towards you? I am impressed, yes – with half the world – by your staggering height, your broad shoulders and wide sheltering arms that seem to carry the sky. But your roots captivate me most, exposed by the water to reveal their true power. Fingers of weaving strength sifting, moving the earth, grasping huge boulders, twisting, turning, steadying the ground as much as yourself. Teach me how to root like you, to spread my palms wide in this soil, coil myself back around the real; and have and hold my belonging here, on actual ground.
Little, lost, lonely sun, where has all your lustre gone? All your shine’s shone out and fallen, every charred quartz treasure stolen. Dazzling show reduced to husk, lights turned off, day made dusk. Do you remember when your bright head beamed spotlights of shade across the ground beneath? Do you mourn all you used to be, towering tall and blazing free? Little, lost, lonely sun, don’t despair, you are not done. You will rise again – at least a thousand fold – dawning brand new stars of beautiful, burning gold.
I’m only now waking to the secret power of the completely ignorable ivy flower. Who could imagine its strange ball ended stems would prove so irresistible to our buzzing friends? But its hedgerow wands are swarming with bees and wasps, sleepily downing pints, then making sudden stark drops. This is the last chance saloon for dosing up on nectar before gracefully retiring from public life for winter. So be careful when you go walking down ivy woven lanes and you hear the soft humming of gentle refrains; respect the spell of binding growth that draws each insect in and marvel at mysterious blooms bewitching flying kin.
Flames dancing the hillside, polished stained glass trees, wild abstract paintings strewn on pavement’s sheen. Deep perpetual sunsets setting on ground and growth, greenery wearing giant gems and bold designer clothes. Bright constellations of hanging sycamore stars, fallen red dwarf suns lying under ruby scars. All in one small corner of October’s gallery, a dazzling show of leaf art in just one stretch of street.
One of the best perks of living in the English countryside is the more unusual chances for pet care that so often arrive. Each year, early in October, we chicken-sit next door’s hens, releasing them, then chasing them back into their pen. They waddle and squabble like living parodies, but there’s nothing like warm, fresh-hatched eggs for free. The house across the road is still up for sale, I really want our new neighbours to have animals as well. I saw a girl in jodhpurs looking round positively, I’m hoping horse-sitting is on the horizon for me!
The first day to bite carries a sting from the north but the dog needs walking, so we must go forth. Here comes the challenge of British inclement weather, the wrapping up in endless layers that seems to take forever. But here comes the joy too of thick woollen clothes, of unearthing your favourite gloves, and pulling your snood over your nose. Here comes the cosy, the comfort and the cuddling, so hug the cold wind close, for without it there’s no huddling.
I know there are other birds still painting our broad, bright skies, but I can’t help seeing emptiness when the swallows have said their goodbyes. I know there are other Springs that will bring them back to me, but I can’t help feeling bereft every time they take their leave. I know there are other people longing for their arriving, but I wish I could keep them near while ensuring Winter thriving. I know it must be a lure, visiting multiple nations, but I wish they’d give up their tours and consider a nice long staycation. I know they deserve acclaim for flying six thousand miles, but I’d be much more impressed if they’d just not go, once in a while. I know they need African sun to warm their artistic wings, but still, I lament their loss as Autumn’s most painful thing.
It’s customary to see clubs of birds perching on a telegraph wire, but not ones including a predator among objects of its own desire. That’s why we didn’t so much look, as openly stand and gawk when a charm of goldfinches sat comfortably – next to a sparrowhawk! What on earth possessed them all to court danger so brazenly; to nestle next to a creature who would regard them as its tea? I know there’s strength in numbers, but did they do it for a dare; goading each other on to seek thrills by precariously staying there? Hearts in mouths, we watched them, waiting for one to call chicken and flee, but they all remained there resolute, standing their ground recklessly. Thankfully they did react when their neighbour took ominous flight, bouncing away delightedly without suffering a single bite!
Did you ever see the wonder of light painting plants before your eyes, like an escapee science experiment in the laboratory of the wild? In primary school we shut beans in the dark to see what they would do, and were amazed to watch the staggering heights to which they desperately grew to find the light they needed to transform white into thriving green, to look again like the healthy shoots we’d previously always seen. This year, inspired by the neighbours, I bought Autumn crocus bulbs, and we’re watching the sun paint them purple as their light-seeking petals unfold. Tucked away in their paper bag, they had already started to flower, but were pure delicate white before feeling the sun’s magic pen power. Now I’m reminded of this colour play, I look for it all around and find creeping veins pumping green into shrubs on shaded ground. But I have to rest my brain after thinking so hard about the biology that conjures such incredible shifts with a touch of illuminosity.
Which wasp larvae have had the gall to irritate this wild rose into growing a ball of frantic, frenetic feathered growth? – a beautiful, living, practical joke. For the last laugh is on any bush or tree whose defence can be used symbiotically to create such a perfect nesting place for a new swarm’s cosy nursery space.
If I could, I’d spend all of Autumn’s precious days chasing the changing up the country’s motorways. I’d drink deep colour all the way from coast to coast, moving on before it faded to brown so I could boast the biggest dose of blazing leaves one person ever saw, a greater drenching in acorn rain than anyone had before. I would gather vast bouquets of perfect poppy heads and make giant installations of all the beautiful living dead. I would feast on fruit from every corner of the isle and stir great batches of sticky jam all the while. I would absorb the abundance, immersed in every vivid sensation till there was no time left for that feeling of consternation that creeps and persists as the grey also builds, and paints a counterpoint of gloom to all that glorious gild. This is how I’d choose to celebrate all that Autumn has to give and rise above the dampening bleak to truly, fully live.
A butterfly in the house is a strangely magical thing, like a fairy painting over ordinary with whimsical wings. All that fluttering motion against the stasis of four walls whispers to the freedom deep within that eagerly calls back to childhood, to wonder, and to lingering play, to chasing fleeting colours on bright Summers’ days. I seek to guide them out, though their leaving is loss, but today’s snoozy Tortoiseshell won’t accept me as boss. It’s determined to move in for winter’s full duration, folding up its wings to suspend in hibernation. We’ve coaxed it from the stairs and the shelves in the hall but it won’t budge from the conservatory roof at all. No matter, now it’s safe, it’s very welcome to stay where the heating can’t confuse it that it might be May. It’s a very special guest I’m delighted we can keep – a still-winged sprite taking an enchanted beauty sleep.
Raspberries and crocuses growing in September cause Autumn to pause, and us to remember Spring and Summer as if they were still here with lost colours, tastes and warmth suddenly brought back near. This is the gorgeous, irresistible reason for growing varieties that feel out of season. For what could be more fun than time travel plants that whisk you back and forth as the year departs?
The downpipe was emanating a strange fluttering sound, so we gingerly took it apart to see what would be found. We expected a butterfly who’d somehow lost its way rather than a coal tit turned miner, tunnelling for the day. What possessed it to dive down our gutter’s water slide, it was, of course, utterly unable to confide. We set it, bedraggled and dazed, to dry out in the sun and trust it fully recovered, for later it was gone. The very next Thursday, while drinking our morning tea, what should we chance to look out the window and see but a coal tit perched on the buddleia in the pouring rain… I’m hoping, if it’s the same one, it won’t get drenched again!
The first leaves to fly are pilfered not fallen, as a moody Friday wind gustily breaks their fragile hold and seizes them for itself. Tossed up as well as down, they flicker and wheel like drunken sailor butterflies at the mercy of contradicting currents overwhelming their tiny wings. I witness the crime, caught in a snow globe of stolen tree confetti while the gasping, grasping gale thieves my breath too, and blows it who knows where.
Down where the river swells wide and greedily licks the bank in premonition and echo of flood, a brave alder stands resolute tall. A persistent survivor of constant colonising land grabs, it clings to its diminishing earth, rising on tiptoe to straddle the fleeing ground and remain balanced, poised and elegant above the fray. I think of a ballerina’s strength ascending en pointe, and applaud the beautiful struggle of the alder’s stoic dance.
I wonder which bird it was that dropped their tea in the terracotta pot under the viburnum tree? For we certainly didn’t plant a sunflower seed, and although of course I wouldn’t say it was a weed, one is flowering uninvited all the same. But as drizzle sets in, and our remaining blooms fade, it’s fabulous to find a brand new sun displayed, so we welcome it gladly though it shines out of place, a beautiful surprise; an unexpected grace.
There’s something about woodland that weaves tall tales from thin air, then embroiders them with thick undergrowth and dappled shade. Life and story blur and meld into something both and neither as the impossible trespasses into truth. Here, everything is close to being something else, shifting shape or casting shadow to wear imagination’s form as its own. Today, there’s a fallen branch emerging from the leaf mulch with a face so suggestive of snake that I hurry past its slithering before it can follow me home.
Low light polishes the river to mirror shine, projecting flying ripples on to the overhang to dance along its branches like water flames licking the wood with dappling burn, until it becomes a web of suspended tributaries rather than a solid, rooted, growing mass. I stop to enter the illusion, embrace still set elevated to cinematic motion as light pulls its playful tricks and quasi-consumes the river tree with liquid luminescence.
We didn’t know we were on a flight path, circling the reservoir at Thruscross and chatting away the afternoon. Our attention was on the water, where four Canada geese swam straight lines, transferring from the air their flair for formation to float in ordered elegance below. Then suddenly, flying low over the sharp rise of the moor, a whole skein descend in sequence with jet skiing finesse while we look up in awe as if at a festival where the Red Arrows are performing a stunt. I marvel at how close they come, their undercarriages shining bright white, as they dip just over our heads and alight with perfect precision on their glistening, rippling landing strip.
Some weekends when walking up Nidderdale’s gravel tracks, you see surprising characters out trekking in little packs. They’re singularly uninhibited and often directly stare, as if it were you that was a novelty to discover tramping there. Sometimes they stop to snack on unsuspecting wayside trees, eating with their mouths wide open despite being in company. If they do decide to smile at you, it’s a very toothy display but it brightens up the morning to meet llamas on your way!
Departed but not gone, ghost flowers linger on, echoing blooming tall despite the fade and fall of colour, petal and seed. This is an Autumn tragedy, glory reduced to parody, as brown stems still stand proud, bereft of rainbows shining loud, all their lustre lost to the wind. But still I remember their names, see them and greet them the same, for even when shrivelled and dry, they proclaim their histories gone by and promise resurrection return.
On the last spear of buddleia to still be in bloom, a flutter of tortoiseshells spends half the afternoon delicately guzzling all the nectar they can eat, drinking through proboscises but tasting with their feet. It seems impolite behaviour to display when taking tea, but butterflies use different rules to define civility.
If you want to see wild deer leaping the walls, bounding the fields, you need to be up when it’s still dark and chase the seclusion sunrise yields. You can’t control their sightings, can’t predict when they might appear, but early in the morning is when I’ve always found them here. Watchful gazes fix on you, then white bobtails glide their retreat, caught in magical gladed moments, disappearing in rustles of leaves.
Everywhere around us, with new shades appearing each day, the trees are gradually revealing their true colours again. I used to believe Autumn’s turning was all about decay until I learned the dying green is really being drawn away. How strange these pigments flaming new were really always here, covered by chlorophyll’s mastery till they all but disappeared. It’s only when strength retreats that hidden hues can shine, weakness revealing burning beauty, fragile but sublime.
In my defence, the wind started it – stealing a piece of popcorn out of my unsuspecting hand and hurling it onto the path. An explosive act detonating a debris of gulls as eye after eye sizes up our bench as the main chance. A black headed battalion lines up, swaggering and cawing like a gang of drunken louts lowering the tone of the park. I am led astray, courting their absurd strutting by scattering more provocation to keep them keen and close. My cackles grow louder than theirs, and that and the swooping flapping leads you to plead for mercy to finish your sandwich in peace. But I am hooked on hilarity and continue my mischief all the way through lunch, much to the delight of our uninvited guests.
All is murk, mizzle and gust but glinting among the drear rain dust, a perfect arc of colour suspends. And though it’s a bleary morning, I feel tinted promise dawning, long to pass under it into more. But as I advance it retreats then swiftly dissolves and depletes, leaving only dampened desire behind. Then just as I fear all is rain, stripes of light re-appear again just a little way on, up the valley. I would rather chase rainbows all day than accept the world as painted grey, so I walk on to the next arching hope.
It is common to praise the ariel displays of swallows, kestrels and kites as they paint the sky in beauty with their dances, hovers and glides. But today my sights are lower, much closer to the ground, where the weightier wood pigeon is so often to be found. Here is a true miracle of fantastic feathered flight as frantic wings whistle and flap with all their might. Somehow the pigeon is conquering the air, even though the odds seem staggeringly unfair. The din overhead carries hints of impending dread, it always seems each one might just crash land instead! The effort it takes just to clear the garden gate suggests they were designed for a walking fate, yet with ideas wildly above their station, they’re trying their best at amateur aviation. But watch them when they’re distant and high, using momentum’s speed to fall, and you’ll realise extreme descent is their true airborne call. Seeing them soundlessly ride the downward current’s flow, suddenly they look born to fly, elegant and graceful from far below.
The schools are back, leaving beauty spots free so we drive to the coast for seaside therapy. Black sand marbles golden in abstract, flowing shapes and the currents within me shift with the push and pull of the waves. A sand piper plays for laughs, scuttling absurd little shows while I delight to reunite the beach with my shoe-freed toes. The gulls cry a perfect soundtrack as I breathe deep salty bliss, feeling my inner oceans calm while sea and shore gently kiss.
In my hand I hold a maybe future tree, a perhaps full forest of oaken possibility. All contained in the potential of a tiny acorn, dappled dreams and towering shade waiting to be born. This one is alone among thousands of fragmented shards that the leaping woodland warriors saw fit to discard, having eaten their fill and scurried on to find more, reducing rooting prospects on the earthen floor. I gently drop my green survivor back, and hope it will one day grow to wave tomorrow’s broad branches over me as I return to walk below.
In the season of seed it seems right to write a verse on the five magic ways seeds use to disperse… the first way they scatter is through gravity’s pull, the second is through birds and critters eating till full. The most dramatic way is when they explode by force, but drifting on the wind also works well of course. Lastly some use water and it’s transporting flow: and that, my friend, is the five ways they go.
If I were a goosander living the river dream, I would fly to beat the current then land and drift downstream. But I’d never be as happy as in my younger days when I’d snoozily drifted safe above the babbling waves, nestled on my mother’s back gliding great distance effortlessly, experiencing the high life with no work required from me. I think after that beginning even flying might seem a chore, while doing my own swimming would be a total bore!
Whenever the waysides fill with seed heads and teasels, I half expect to come across paint pots and easels, so strong is their connection to lessons in art and a succession of teachers trying to impart the beautiful way they display texture and shape, the perfect still life subjects their arrangements make. The hours went slow trying to echo them on paper, and I spent most of the time talking to my neighbour. I still can’t capture Autumn’s emblems in charcoaled lines but I have learned to recognise them as treasured finds. I bring them indoors and group their stems in jars with flair, enjoying their finery now, and remembering then and there.
Disturbing the peace, at first they’re heard not seen, like the dissonant honking of competing car horns caught in angry confrontation somewhere in the next village. And then they fall quiet overhead, their swift soaring image conflicting with their previous sound, a graceful ticking yes in the sky, flying in perfect formation as if unity and close co-ordination were the only things on their minds. The perfect team, using the air and its slip streams to common purpose, they sweep on in silent, consistent shape. But once out of sight, synchronised motion is replaced again by cacophonous commotion, and I can’t help thinking, despite every analogy, that the goose at the back is protesting the route.
It’s way too light in the early morning to expect to find a bat gently snoring, but sure enough from the edge of the green pot, one is hanging fast asleep as if it forgot to follow its colony to more private climes, where all is shadowed and safe from daylight shine. We get close enough to marvel at tiny feet holding firm with so much more weight hanging down under them. We wonder if our bat will sleep till night’s cover returns but it wakes, stretches, scratches and quickly learns that it isn’t quite where it would like to nap all day, so it takes off during breakfast, and flies fast away.
We find a delicious recipe for hedgerow cake, which we cannot resist trying to make. So we climb the hills and scour the wayside for brambles, getting stung, scratched and temporarily entangled with the bushes that bear the confection we need to make the wild concoction we long to eat. And even though my hands are scarred and raw, tinged with purple that wasn’t there before, it was worth all the effort and the prickling thorns to slowly forage for a beautiful black store, and to enjoy the slowing, calming sensation of picking the ingredients for a new creation. We return laden with piles of juicy loot, mix the sweet batter, then add our fruit, and when it’s all baked, iced and served it feels so satisfyingly well deserved… but shhh, we picked enough to make more with nothing like the work it took before. And I suspect I’ll still enjoy the next one immensely, even without picking one single blackberry!
The first mornings of September feel just like that, with clear blue skies, low golden light, and crisp air that smells of fresh beginnings, carrying with it the always remembered expectation of brand new exercise books and shiny, sharpened pencils. The dew is so heavy it glimmers like frost and even though it’s decades since my terms began, I still feel I must be back to school soon. Focus and purpose pervade the day, the chilling air forcing a final goodbye to summer, and a growing acceptance that as the students return, so the swallows must leave again too.
The first Discovery was crisp and sweet, a tangy, tasty orchard-plucked treat. I eye the rest of the pile with tingling tongue, apple season has only just begun. Fruit bowl, fridge, cupboard and table we’ll find as much space as we’re able to fill with stocks of ripened fare to feast on, freeze, stew and share. But for now, even in this first crunch’s savour, it’s all here distilled – pure September flavour.
I’m still watching for the green to turn, but warm Autumn colours already burn in the shimmering flames of the first fire to cosy the house since last winter. Outside the blaze hasn’t reached the woods and there’s no golden glamour to compensate for the gusting cold and greying skies that steal sunshine memories as summer dies. But here inside, all is promise and premonition, as wild dancing colour draws us in and on to picture titian trees and hear crunching leaves, anticipating frosts and firework bursts by blazing bonfires, holding mulled wine in thick-gloved hands. So much of the coming season is felt now, prefigured in this first amber shining, as we sit in the living room glow and wait for the world to bronze beyond the grate.
Old Spring Wood seemed quiet, still and empty of all life but the trees and me walking under them in peace. No bird song or greetings from people or dogs, just the trees and me walking under them at ease. When suddenly, like electricity vibrating in the air I’m surrounded by loud thrumming all around, everywhere. The source? Invisible though I look in every direction. The result? An incomparably unnerving sensation. If I didn’t know better I’d suspect some kind of haunting, but the reality is actually almost as daunting. There must be thousands of them above me, wasps or bees, hidden swarms gathering en masse in the canopy of trees. I speed up my pace, feeling considerably on edge till I’m out through the gate and past the boundary hedge. Pleased to be back on to safer, silent ground, I walk on in relief, trying to process what I found. But the next time I return to brave Old Spring Wood, all is calm and tranquil, sounding vacant as it should.
Four cabbage white babies crawl in a line, eating the mattress on which they also lie, while another in its adult shape flutters near to me and I hope to myself that they don’t completely eat the lily pads and flowers I was counting on for lunch, after all, they’re not the only ones who like to munch on peppery salad leaves and bright orange blooms, so I hope they move on from my nasturtiums soon!
Caught, held, arrested in flight, a wispy thistle angel breezily alights. Guardian wings cradle round, protecting tiny, precious seed, vow to carry it far on the wind, to serve its growing need. I place it on the table by the open door, it flies away to freedom, just as before.
The leaves are still green but the signs are everywhere, from the crisping air of morning to countless seeds in the dog’s hair! Summer’s handing over, ticking off her final tasks, while Autumn is impatient to begin making his mark. The lights will change soon to sheen the world amber red, the gorgeous green of summer retiring to her bed. But the wheel keeps turning and what is lost will be found as the seasons shift and shimmer and the last comes back around.
Wings too wet and heavy to flit away, a peacock butterfly spends half the day sunbathing its splendour on the garage wall until it’s confident it will flutter, not fall. Then with a flourish it rises high dry enough to fly enough to reach the sky. I miss it gently fanning its beautiful wings but receive a new gift when the song thrush sings.
The news is in, the heather’s out so we drive to the tops to see the fresh made purple hill-waves of the deep, wide moorland sea. Vast expanses painted in flower stretch blooms to the edge of sight, entrancing even those familiar with this annual summer delight. I try to hold it in memory, dales dyed their best for the country shows, but can’t recapture top of the world splendour once I’m back in the valley below. I wish it would last forever but then it wouldn’t be the same, I couldn’t chase its beauty in a yearly fleeting game. So I’ll just cherish this moment, breathe deep the brief lilac haze, and console myself when it goes over, it will return again to re-amaze.
I’m sure, like me, you’ve had those days when you wish you could be, someone or something else different from yourself entirely: to fly and soar on the wind as a bird free and high, to be your carefree dog as he sleeps by the fireside. But I must confess to feeling more than a little surprised by the metamorphosis-seeking Cabbage White that I spied clinging with wings closed green to a tall vegetable stem, as if what it perceived to be the envy of all men was becoming a corn on the cob! For twenty four hours it paused there quite still, but all the wishing in the world could not fulfil its desire to experience another’s life for a day, so it gave up, ascended, and fluttered away.
It must be hard to be a mint’s flower, constantly overlooked when its leaves are eagerly sought out and celebrated in recipe books. For centuries the herb’s been picked to soothe, freshen and flavour, while its blossom has remained passed over and out of favour. It’s hard when no one appreciates just how prettily you bloom, even if they’re always thankful for their infinite uses for you! So when you sauce your lamb, brush your teeth or drink mint tea, remember the beautiful petals that ensured there was more seed.
After the rain, the ground is soaked with rose confetti and fallen fuchsia bells. Heavy rudbeckia heads half collapse themselves down like folded umbrellas, still dripping wet. And the garden smells of spice as moisture polishes the curry leaves to sing their flavour through the air so deliciously you can almost taste it, after the rain.
I saw the strangest bush when walking along the track, its blooms looking for all the world like an opened pack of those retro snowball biscuits that came in pink and white, transporting me back to Eighties childhood treat delights. I ask myself what other deja vu flowers I might find? – midget gems and party rings dancing through my mind…
The evenings are chillier now, dusk creeping into night in front of us long before it’s time for bed, so we retreat to the sofa to watch whodunnits on the TV rather than sitting outside instead. I am gripped by the murder plot but just as hooked on a second screen – the window to outside’s darkening activity where, drawn to the light of flickering flames from our candles, two darting bats weave their own mystery. The house in the film is turreted and there is an unusual blending of worlds, as if the garden here is becoming there, and the night winged creatures painting black on midnight blue so close to us might actually be an imagined, storied pair.
This is the first year I’ve looked around carefully enough to see, after honeysuckle finishes flowering come bursts of bright rubies. Fragrance fades, petals fall, but shining in their stead, clusters of radiant berries adorn it with new found brilliant red. It’s a simple, obvious picture, but no less hopeful, profound and true, when what you’re known for fades, unexpected fruit still comes from you. So trust in the turning season, trust even as blooms spoil and spill, without the loss of what is, tomorrow’s promise cannot be fulfilled.
Down in the garden, in the raised veg beds, some unexpected blooms are raising their heads. A florist would look blank if you asked for them there – in fact that would be quite a fun little dare! But trust me, they’re beautiful despite their progeny, these new Charlotte blossoms, shining fine for me. Paper white petals with a yellow trumpet heart, perhaps it’s time potato flowers got to play their part in the bouquets we choose, arrange and display, why disqualify them because of their humble name?!
Every evening when the light begins to dim, the sun is dipping and the blackbird sings, one after another, a troop of sleepy blue tits come, filing themselves under the fascia board, one by one. How they slot in such a tiny space I never will know, but I love to sit and watch them as they go to rest their weary feathers, already lost in reverie while the blackbird sings lullabies from the sycamore tree.
Mesmerised, in a Monday morning trance at the whizzing, spinning butterflies’ dance. Courting conducted at a dizzying speed, gyroscoping with fluttering ease, tumbling, rolling over and over, high above, now down near the clover, a two spoked Catherine wheel sparkling bright, flickering, shimmering gymnasts of light. I must walk on and begin my day but I take to heart their sense of play.
Daisies, daisies, give me your answer do, why can’t I ever walk past without stopping to smile at you? I think it’s those summer lunchtimes sat out on the long school grass, picking petals to predict romance, so happy not to be in class. Stringing your stems in garlands round ankles, wrists and necks, of course that’s why, years later, I never can forget the feel of cheer and charm as you scatter your smiles at me, even when I’m walking at speed and seemingly far too busy to stop and sit and play again at lovelorn games and daisy chains.
The wrens in my garden are tiny hula girls who hop into the Fuchsia and set it all a whirl with quivering and jiggling as they hunt among its leaves, unaware of their performance as they retrieve bugs for their breakfast, for lunch and for tea, an accidental dinner show at nine, twelve and three!
Landscape, habitat, historic local fauna and flora are all interrupted by escapee garden explorers. It’s important to strive for balanced biodiversity but I can’t help the childish rush of delight when I see a burst of exotic dragon heads painting the hedgerow red when really there should only be brambles there instead. Against the grey of dry stone wall and the constant green of field, fell and all there is something gleeful that always transpires when I see such vivid blooms of crimson fire – be it legitimate joy or half guilty pleasure – I still believe I’m finding wayside treasure.
This song’s for the sparrows, perennially underestimated jewels who dart and dive and flap and squawk, under incomprehensible mob rules. Daredevil kamikazes almost brushing the hairs on your head, little gutter acrobats drinking up rain and scavenging for bread. Disruptors of ordered vegetable beds, with a taste for bathing in soil, who use the potting shed’s asphalt roof to exfoliate tummy and tail. Shakers of Viburnum branches, huge gatherings full of clamour, making up with plenty of drama for all they lack in glamour. Balancing on bamboo pole ends, on top of the bean teepee, extreme perchers excelling at what looks impossible to me. Why are they so dismissed, barely given a second look, when their characterful shenanigans deserve a story book? Perhaps it’s time to make them heroes of a famous tale or two, or at the least to underline they’re well worth bird watching too.
I will sit at the foot of the old ash tree and open my heart to the sound of the Song Thrush weaving its melody – sweet, lilting and loud. Each year that passes, I will hope to hear how it lengthens its narrative of notes, telling new tales of winter survived, stretching cadences like long summer days. Perhaps I too will learn his craft, building my stories year by year. Perhaps I too will find fresh notes for others to sit and hear.
When you lay out your welcome mat and fling your back door wide, be careful because you might not know quite who you’re inviting inside! Some guests will hop into the kitchen, confused about where to feed fledglings, others will fly all through the house on wildly misdirected wings. Then a cricket might just sit boldly on your actual welcome mat, leaving you protesting, “I didn’t mean quite that!”.
When summer’s in its swan song and August’s long begun, a strange melancholy can beckon with the end of holiday fun. That’s when you need reminding Autumn brings her own bliss, look to the hedgerows dear one, there’s something you shouldn’t miss. Search for the delicate white, find the first black beads to bite, savour the sweet tanged delight, let flavour win your internal fight. Believe the promise of more that’s coming, welcome the herald of colour and fruit, soon trees, not just brambles, will be laden with delicious new beauty to salute.
I was just so glad when the first gladioli grew their stems full straight and high and broadcast their blooms in beautiful hues making perfect the present-bulbs I gave to you.
And it makes me so glad that this wonder is real, you bury a knobbly gift and trust its promise fulfils. Weeks and months pass, then when you’ve half forgotten colour unfolds fountains and shines surprise gems.
I always imagined our view unlooked at when we sleep. When we’re not on the terrace and the doors are all locked, while the creeping dark slowly covers the garden in moonlight quiet and makes everything still. Paused. Waiting to be reawakened by opening curtains and doors and human activity restored.
But I was wrong.
Our view is looked at when we sleep by those that scuttle and creep and keep the night watch.
One such creature is covered in spines and has been spied now as he climbs, hauling himself slowly up the steps with splayed flat feet and tiny short legs to snuffle for grubs and evening snacks, to enjoy gazing out before turning on his tracks. Now he descends again, a slinky on the stairs, trotting back happily to his own bed, cosied in under the potting shed.
No, our view is not unlooked at when we sleep, no doubt many more have managed to keep their secret, shadowed prowling unseen while we look away, lost in our dreams – missing seeing, not just the view, but the night watch team and all they do.
Sitting out late, enjoying the light and the delicate breeze of approaching night. The fire pit blazes and up in the skies a feathery cloud blanket lies. All feels protected, charmed – at peace, we listen and look, resting in ease. Then there among the blue and gold, the evening shivers in more cold, and sure enough the blanket shifts into tiny cloud-seeds that start to drift, like a dandelion clock blowing on the wind with time to waste and tales to spin. And all of this beauty whispers to me, “time for bed dear heart, time to sleep”.